Sharpshooters in Action

by Fred Ray on November 19, 2008 · 0 comments

While looking through Francis A. Walker’s Second Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac I came across this passage, which describes the fighting between Heth’s division and Hancock’s Second Corps at the Battle of Boydton Plank Road:

It may be interesting to pass to the Confederate side and see how the operations of the 27th of October were viewed there. I have in my possession a letter from Major-General Heth, commanding one of A. P. Hill’s divisions and actually in command of all the troops opposed to Parke, to Warren, or to Hancock during the day. “The grave error of the day committed on your side, in my opinion,” says General Heth, “was that, after crossing Hatcher’s Run and starting to march up, Crawford permitted himself to be stopped in [within ?] certainly half a mile or less, of my right flank. Hearing a force was moving up the run, on the west side, I hurriedly sent about fifty or seventy-five sharpshooters to find out definitely what this force consisted of, and to delay it as long as possible. Mind: all this occurred in dense woods. Crawford, not knowing the smallness of the force opposed to him, formed line of battle, and, I was informed, commenced to intrench. Had he pushed on, my flank would have been completely turned, and I would have been compelled to evacuate my works. About this time, or soon after Crawford’s movement was checked, Mahone reported to me with two brigades of his division. Convinced now that Parke would make no serious assault, and Crawford remaining quiet, I withdrew one brigade, McRae’s, from my lines, and, uniting it with Mahone’s two brigades, I crossed over the river with this force,” etc.

Although Harry Heth gets a bad rap as a general on the basis of his performance on the first day of Gettysburg, he definitely shone this day. Although the Federals initially gained the road, Heth counterattacked and drove them back, retaining the vital artery for the Confederates for the rest of the winter.

This was typical of the way the Confederates used their sharpshooters. Although organized into 3-5 companies for administrative purposes, tactically each battalion usually operated as two “corps” of 70-100 men each. The sharpshooters that Heth sent against Crawford were probably one “corps,” which managed to bluff an entire Union division, allowing Heth to concentrate his men elsewhere.

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